Labneh in a cheesecloth
Labneh about to be unwrapped

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be feeling somewhat bloated and liverish after Christmas and New Year, so I’ll hold the roast goose recipe back until later in the week when our gall bladders have all recovered. I was racking my brains for a nice easy recipe to start the year with – something that’s simple to prepare, and has few ingredients, but that tastes great and will impress guests or a picky family. How about labneh, a soft “cheese” from the middle east, made in your fridge from thick Greek-style yoghurt?

Greek yoghurt is thicker than the sloppy variety by virtue of having been strained until much of the whey drains out, leaving you with a richer, thicker product. Labneh takes the process further, continuing to drain until almost all of the whey has gone, and you are left with a thick, sharp-tasting ball that looks like soft cream cheese. It’s not a true cheese because rennet is not used in making it, but I like to use it where you might use something like Philadelphia – and when it’s made by the method below, with fresh garlic, you’ll find that it’s a mighty fine substitute for Boursin, richer, denser and without the dusty dried garlic taste you get in the packaged stuff from the supermarket. Labneh is a great addition to a cheeseboard, either in a chunk on its own or in a bowl, splashed with olive oil. Experiment by adding herbs to the garlic: for a Turkish flavour, try some dill and chillies; chop in some mint with the garlic for a Greek platter.

My Mum made the labneh in the pictures at Christmas as part of a cold supper. It’s fantastic wherever you’d use cream cheese or with crudites, and great crumbled over rich middle-eastern dishes, especially those containing lamb; I’ve got a cheesecloth full going in the fridge at the moment which is destined to be spread on crusty bread and served with a Greek-style lamb shoulder.

You’ll need:

400g Greek yoghurt (make sure that you choose a version without emulsifiers or thickeners; I like Total)
1 large pinch salt
2 cloves garlic, chopped as finely as possible

Labneh straight out of the cheesecloth

Line a sieve with a boiled cheesecloth, and put it over a bowl to catch drips. You can also use a boiled kitchen towel if you don’t have a cheesecloth – an old linen one which has been washed many times will be softer and easier to work with.

Stir the yoghurt, salt and garlic well in a bowl to make sure everything is well combined. You can leave the garlic out if you want a plain labneh; the garlic gives a lovely fiery kick to the finished cheese. Pour the yoghurt mixture into the lined sieve, bring the corners and edges up to form a bag around the labneh and twist together. You can secure the twist with string if you like, but it’s not really necessary.

Put the bowl and sieve into the fridge and leave the labneh to drain for between 24 and 48 hours, squeezing the bag every now and then. The cheese will be a pleasant, creamy texture after 24 hours, and leaving it for longer will make it even stiffer, and harder to spread.

To keep your labneh in the fridge, cover it completely with olive oil in a bowl. It will keep for two weeks, but I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself finishing it much sooner than that.

Croque Madame

Croque Madame
Croque Madame

That Béchamel from Tuesday’s post was made with this sandwich in mind. The Croque Madame (literally “Mrs Crunch”, but that sounds considerably less elegant than the French) is one of the world’s great sandwiches, up there with the banh mi, the burger and the pan bagna. The best I’ve ever eaten wasn’t actually in France, but at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Las Vegas, where it was made with brioche and served with french fries to mop up the dreamy clouds of Béchamel and egg yolk. This one’s a little different, and makes up for the lack of decent brioche in rural Cambridgeshire by dipping the sandwich in an egg and cheese mixture before frying. Dreadful for the arteries, fantastic in the mouth. Gilding the lily, I served this with sauteed potatoes dressed with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, and a very sharply dressed salad.

There is more effort involved in this sandwich than there is in slapping together your lunchtime BLT, but it’s absolutely worth it. This is a dish best eaten as part of a lazy Sunday brunch with somebody you love. It’s extremely rich, so that salad’s well worth having on hand to cut through the buttery, cheesy density of flavour. This is, to put it mildly, a bloody marvellous sandwich. Do try making one yourself.

To serve two, you’ll need:

4 thick slices good white bread
4 large eggs
100g Parmesan cheese
200g Gruyere cheese
200g cooked ham, sliced thinly (I like a ham I’ve cooked myself, but a good deli ham is fine here)
2 teaspoons smooth Dijon mustard
2 large knobs butter
50ml (or more, if, like me, you’re greedy) Béchamel sauce

Preheat the oven to 170ºC (340ºF), with a metal pan ready for your sandwiches on a high shelf. Have a pan of warm Béchamel sauce standing by.

Build the sandwiches by spreading the bottom slice with Dijon mustard, layering on the ham, and topping with the grated Gruyere. Put the lid on and give the sandwich a firm squash with the flat of your hand to pack it down a bit.

In a flat dish large enough to take a sandwich, beat two of the eggs with the finely grated Parmesan. Heat one knob of butter in a frying pan big enough to take both sandwiches until it starts to bubble.

Dunk each sandwich in the egg mixture, making sure both sides soak up some of the egg. Slide the sandwiches into the butter and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until golden. Use a stiff spatula to remove the sandwiches to the heated tray in the oven, and cook for ten minutes to ensure all the cheese is melted.

While the cheese is melting, melt more butter in the pan you fried the sandwiches in, and allow it to bubble away until it is a nutty brown colour (beurre noisette, if we’re being precise here). Fry two eggs in the nutty butter so the white is just set and the yolks runny. Remove the sandwiches to warmed plates, spoon over a few tablespoons of Béchamel, and top each one off with a fried egg.

Parmesan, leek and thyme scone bread

Cut parmesan sconeInspiration comes from funny places, on this occasion Dr W’s nostalgic thoughts about a parmesan and leek scone that Starbucks sold when they first arrived in the UK and we all discovered Frappuccinos and comfy chairs. I remember that scone dimly, and it seems the scone in my imagination and the scone in his are not the same thing at all. The scone I remember was a dry and sad production with not enough cheese, not enough leek, and a miserable little pot of cream cheese to smear inadequately on the cut surface to moisten it. Dr W remembers it as some sort of delicate überscone, a scone of youth and freedom. I love him, so I came up with a scone bread for his dinner that might remind him of the original (not too closely, obviously, because I didn’t like the original much – this one’s much moister and packs a lot more flavour).

You shouldn’t need any butter to moisten this scone; it’s very rich. Treat it as a bready accompaniment to go with ham, some hard cheese, chutney and a salad for a quick supper. It’s best served warm from the oven, but it’s terrific cold, and will be great the next day in a lunchbox too. A bread leavened with baking powder like this is great for those who are nervous around yeast, and, because it doesn’t need long periods of proving and rising, is much quicker to make than a yeasty bread too.

To make enough for six portions, you’ll need:

240g plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
100g salted butter
100g leeks, green and white parts
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, picked from stems
75g Parmesan cheese
50g Cheddar cheese
2 large eggs, plus one to glaze
120ml semi-skimmed milk

Parmesan leek sconePreheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Cut the cold butter into little pieces in the flour bowl and rub them into the flour with your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Chop the leek into very small dice and grate the cheeses. Stir the leek, cheese and thyme into the flour and butter mixture.

In a small bowl, whisk two eggs and the milk together. Pour into the dry mixture and use your hands to bring ingredients together gently until you have a ball of dough.

On a greased tray lined with parchment paper, press the ball of dough into a flat, round loaf shape. Beat the egg for glazing and brush it over the surface of the loaf.

Bake for 35 minutes until pale gold. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean – if it doesn’t, keep cooking for 5 minutes and check again until the scone bread is done.

When the scone bread is ready, remove it to a cooling rack and leave it for twenty minutes to cool off a little. Slice into six pieces and serve warm.

Cheese and chorizo baked potato

I seem to be having a bit of a thing about chorizo at the moment. Blame this never-ending winter – a hot blast of smoke, paprika and garlic is surprisingly uplifting when it’s this steadily grim outside.

This is a great storecupboard dish, and one that goes down very well with kids (if yours don’t tolerate the heat of the paprika, substitute a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. You can also use good ham, preferably home-cooked, in place of the chorizo). This is fatsome and packed with carbs: it’s absolutely not a diet dish. Cook it on a day when you’ve been yomping in the woods or chopping logs. To serve four, you’ll need:

Four large potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
75g cream cheese
100g grated cheddar cheese
1 clove garlic, crushed into a paste
2 banana shallots, diced finely
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 chorizo ring
1 handful (about 25g) chopped parsley
1 large pinch salt, plus salt to rub on the skins

Preheat the oven to 200°C (450°F). Use your hands to rub the olive oil into the skins of the potatoes, and dredge them with plenty of flaky salt. I used smoked Maldon salt, which marries nicely with the other smoky flavours in this dish. Bake the potatoes for an hour and a half.

While the potatoes are cooking, chop the chorizo into small pieces and fry them in a dry pan until the fat is running. Set aside. Chop and grate the other ingredients.

When the potatoes are ready, slice them in half and, holding the potato in an oven glove, scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl. You’ll be left with a nice little potato-skin cup. Stir the cheeses (reserving a little cheddar to sprinkle over the top), shallot, garlic, parsley and paprika into the fluffy potato with a large pinch of salt, and when everything is well-mixed, stir in the chorizo and its fat. Pile the mixture back into the potato skins, and top with the reserved cheese.

Return the filled skins to the oven for another 20 minutes, until golden brown on top, and serve piping hot.

Little break in Lille

The nice folks at Eurostar and Little Break, Big Difference invited me and a gaggle of other food bloggers to come with them to Lille for a day of foodie tourism. The basic idea here seems to be to demonstrate that destinations like Lille are so close to London that you can hop on a train in the morning, fill a day with Gallic excitement, and then pop back home on that same train in the evening. Once you’re at St Pancras, you’re less than an hour and a half from Lille – and Lille’s station is under five minutes’ walk from the old town centre, so there’s really very little excuse for my not having been before. It’s also, at around £60 a return ticket, far cheaper than I’d realised.

And if you’re the sort of person for whom a day’s food shopping, hunting for French tableware, tasting nibbly bits, soaking up atmosphere and dabbling at cookery lessons sounds just about perfect, you could do a lot worse than emulate the day’s itinerary that was organised for us, perhaps with a slightly later start and an evening meal in France (we left London at 7am, which meant a 5am start for lots of us, and returned before supper time). I don’t usually enjoy pre-organised, structured tourism (I get a lot of pleasure out of organising and planning things myself and get depressingly snobbish about guided tours and package holidays). Fortunately the company was so good and the city so packed with interesting food and drink – breakfast, a lunch cooked by the group at l’Atelier des Chefs, a cheese and beer tasting and an awful lot of pâtisseries – that I found myself enjoying being in something that would have felt a bit like a tour group if everybody hadn’t been quite so single-mindedly seeking out and photographing food.

It’s August, so northern France has emptied out. Lille was wonderfully quiet, especially before 10am, when the shops opened, giving us a great opportunity to take some pictures of a quiet, sunny city. We started with a spot of pâtisserie and chocolate shopping; this bread is from Aux Merveilleux de Fred (67 rue de la Monnaie), where fez-sized meringue merveilleuxes, sandwiched together with a dollop of buttercream and encased in chocolate, were also being prepared. (Sadly, a fez-sized meringue does not travel well, so Fred’s merveilleuxes remain unsampled – if you can visit in the morning you’ll have a very enjoyable few minutes watching them being made through the window.) We did buy a baguette here to sample as soon as the shop opened, and it was excellent in the way only something this fresh can be, with a crackling crust, a soft and yeasty crumb, and a total refusal to fit comfortably in anyone’s bag. We then overwhelmed the poor staff at Patrick Hermand (Rue Basse), a modern pâtisserie in a tiny lacquered box of a room, where about twenty varieties of macarons were on offer, alongside these joyous pâtisseries. Note – what you are seeing here is cakes with macarons embedded in them. A large box of macarons came home with me.

On to Meert (27, Rue Esquermoise), a pâtisserie and restaurant opened in 1761, where we sampled deceptively slim and delicate waffles in the beautiful baroque dining room at the back of the shop. They might be slim, but these waffles or gauffres are, unusually, stuffed with an incredibly dense buttercream spiked with flecks of vanilla, and at this time in the morning I could only manage one, praying inbetween bites that death from an overwhelmed gall bladder would wait until I was finished. A photograph of me enjoying a waffle a little bit too much has been put on Flickr by the ladies from Little Break, Big Difference. Note that I’ve only managed one mouthful so far in the picture. Merveilleuxes were available here too, and we split one between four, helped down with some scented, fruity iced tea and a few gallons of coffee. Shopping at Meert is well worth your time even if you don’t choose to sit down for a bite to eat; you’ll find all kinds of pâtisseries, caramels, fruit jellies, chocolates, miniature waffles and some excellent teas and coffees.

A brisk trot through town, giving us a chance to enjoy the sunny morning, to a cookery class at l’Atelier des Chefs. If I’d been planning the day myself, there’s absolutely no way I’d have been involved in cooking my own lunch, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys casual classes and an introduction to local produce a
nd flavours, you might want to look into a session here. (L’Atelier also runs classes in London and many other cities – check their UK website for details.) Divided into groups of four and clad in very swanky Eurostar-branded aprons, we had a quick drink in a room full of kitchen equipment for sale. Once in the kitchen, we were talked through the preparation of tiramisu made with speculoos, the delicious caramel and cinnamon biscuits you’ll find served alongside coffee in these parts; then we prepared cod flambéed in honey and fleur de bière, a hoppy, floral eau de vie distilled from beer. A pleasant but not fabulous meal (the honey/fleur de bière sauce made for a very unbalanced, candied flavour profile which doesn’t sit well with cod) – and once we were perched on stools to eat our meal at a table surrounded by shelves and shelves of more expensive merchandise, I found myself wishing we’d gone to L’Huîtrière in the old town instead. But I am an avowed grump who does a lot of cooking – as you are doubtless of a sunnier disposition, your mileage may vary.

We were met at Le Capsule (25 Rue des 3 Molettes), a fantastically atmospheric little bar full of French emo kids, by Aymeric Gillet-Chevais, the president and founder of ATPUB, the French version of CAMRA. Down in the damp (and very dark, so I’m showing you a picture of the town square instead) cellar, he talked us through French beer culture, and told us about the different producers. The bar is not tied to a specific brewery (unlike a shocking 99% of French bars), so you’ll find 130 beers on the list from minuscule breweries, many very close to Lille itself. We worked our way through four beers; I particularly liked Page 24, from a small brewery 35km outside the city. Chicory is a common addition to northern French beers, says Aymeric, who must have France’s very best name; and this blonde beer packs a bitter punch, rounded off with a lovely coriander nose. Four local cheeses from Philippe Olivier (3, Rue Curé St Etienne) were served too, and it is to my eternal misery that a family emergency had closed the shop for the afternoon, because I would have murdered for a slab of the Maroilles we ate to take home.

We had about twenty minutes before having to dash for the train, so I visited La Capsule’s sister shop, l’Abbaye des Saveurs and stocked up on beers and some other local goodies. Happily for all those of us in the EU, the shop also has an e-commerce arm. Homeware shops, cookware shops and delicatessens proliferate all the way round the old town, so you should be able to find some foodie bits and pieces to take home (save this for the end of the afternoon – if you’re only around for a day, you’ll be doing a lot of walking and this is no fun with four litres of beer, a camera and a bushel of macarons in your bag) no matter how little time you have.

You’ll find more about the day on the blogs listed at the top of the post, and video and more pictures have been unleashed on the Internet by the Little Break Big Difference ladies. I have to admit, I’m not too sure what went on on the train on the way home. I fell asleep.

Granny Sue’s seeded cheese nibbles

Granny Sue, I should explain, is not my granny. She’s the granny of a friend, and creator of the world’s greatest cheese biscuit recipe. Last time we visited, her grandson’s lovely wife produced a dish of Granny Sue’s most excellent biscuits, and kicked half the batch she made up a notch with a sprinkle of cumin seeds. I waited until they were both rendered soft and giving with drink, and demanded the recipe: here it is, unaltered by me aside from the addition of some more whole spices.

The unholy amount of butter and cheese in these makes for an intensely crisp, rich finish – I defy you not to scarf the lot in about five minutes flat.

To make about 25 toothsome little biscuits, you’ll need:

60g plain flour
60g sharp Cheddar cheese
60g salted butter
1 egg yolk
1 heaped tablespoon whole-grain mustard
20g Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon each fennel seeds, cumin seeds and coriander seeds

Put the butter in the freezer for 20 minutes, while the oven heats to 200°C (400°F). Sieve the flour from a height, making sure you get plenty of air into it, into a large mixing bowl, and grate the Cheddar cheese into it. Grate the frozen butter into the bowl, and use a knife to mix the butter, cheese and flour together well. Add the egg yolk and the mustard to the bowl with a little water (the amount of water you’ll need to make a soft dough will vary according to the conditions on the day you make the biscuits) and mix with the knife until you have a dough which comes together nicely without sticking.

On baking sheets, form teaspoons of the mixture with your fingers into little rounds or lozenges about half a centimetre thick – it’s fussy but rather nice to create a different shape for each of the three different spices you’ll be using. Sprinkle a pinch of grated Parmesan on each one, then a pinch of one of the spices. I made a third of my batch of biscuits with cumin, a third with coriander and a third with fennel. Press the top of each biscuit gently with your finger to make sure the whole spices are firmly engaged with the cheese. Bake for 12 minutes until the biscuits are sizzling and golden. Cool on the baking sheets for ten minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Serve with drinks before dinner.

Ambrose Heath’s Anchovy Biscuits

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed a few references to Edwardian savouries and a writer called Ambrose Heath this week. The savoury used to be a course served at the end of a formal English meal. Salty, umami and often highly spiced, the savoury was packed in by English gentlemen after dessert while they discussed hats and feudalism. A salty nibble was meant to cleanse the palate of whatever gelatinous pudding you’d just eaten so you could happily assault it with a cigar and too much port.

The savoury didn’t survive the period of rationing during and after the Second World War (a period which rendered English food completely joyless – it’s only started to recover recently). A grave shame, especially for those, like me, who lack a particularly sweet tooth; I’d far sooner eat a bacon sarnie than an ice-cream. Recipes for savouries are, these days, pretty hard to find, but I have several in a pre-war book by Andre Simon, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a copy of Ambrose Heath’s Good Savouries in a second-hand book shop last week.

Ambrose Heath was a prolific food writer: there are more than 70 books to his name. One of the first cookery books I owned was his book on sauces, which, along with his other books, appeals to the systematising, cataloguing part of my soul that lives somewhere on the autistic spectrum. His books are exhaustive and meticulous treatments of their subjects – there are multiple recipes with tiny tweaks for many of the dishes, alternative approaches and ingredient substitutions, and a lovely sense of a rather plump, happy man behind the pen. (And isn’t that a gorgeous cover illustration?)

Most of the savouries in this book are based around salty ingredients like ham, bacon, anchovy or bloaters; they’re usually spiced vigorously with curry powder or chutney, and are presented sitting on a fried crisp of bread, a puff of pastry or a hollowed roll buttered and baked crisp. This recipe for anchovy biscuits reads as follows:

To make the pastry for the cheese straws, Heath says you’ll need:

2oz plain flour
2oz grated parmesan
2oz butter
Yolk of 1 egg
A dash of mustard
Salt and pepper

His recipe will have you rubbing the butter into the flour/parmesan/mustard mixture, binding with the egg yolk and a little water, then baking for ten minutes. I changed the method a little, freezing the butter for 15 minutes and shredding it on the coarse side of the grater into the flour/parmesan mixture (to which I’d added a teaspoon of Madras curry powder), stirring everything together with a knife and binding the resulting mixture with the egg yolk and some ice-cold water mixed with four anchovies pounded in the mortar and pestle. I rested the pastry in the fridge for half an hour before rolling it out very thinly, cutting out 48 rounds with my smallest cookie cutter, and baking at 200°C for 12 minutes until golden. Rub the mixture in if you prefer, but grating in hard butter will give you a puffier, crisper result. I left out salt and pepper – the anchovies and curry powder will provide all the salt and spice you need.

To make the paste to spread on top of the biscuits, I pounded four more anchovy fillets, 1 teaspoon of curry powder (Madras again – Bolsts is my favourite curry powder, but you should use your favourite brand/ferocity), 2 tablespoons of parmesan, 1 tablespoon of chopped capers (in wine vinegar, not salt, which would just be too much with the anchovies), 1 tablespoon of oil from the anchovies and 1 teaspoon of smooth Dijon mustard in the mortar and pestle until smooth. This will give you enough to smear each biscuit with the tip of a knife – look to use a very tiny amount of the topping, which is strong and salty. If you are familiar with Marmite or Vegemite, you need to spread in about the proportions you would spread those on toast. Allow the biscuits to cool before spreading them or they will be too fragile to work with.

Pop the biscuits in an oven heated to 180°C for five minutes. The spread will go slightly puffy. Dress with a little parsley before serving warm. Rather than eating your anchovy biscuits at the end of a meal, I’d suggest you use them as nibbles with drinks – a very dry Fino sherry or a Dirty Martini will work beautifully against them.

Truffled mac and cheese

Back in the dark days of the 1980s, one of the first things I learned to make in home economics class at my all-girls’ school was macaroni cheese. Ours was a class training in the basics of good 1980s wifery – white sauces like the Mornay that forms the base of this dish, bread, pastry, and, bizarrely, the correct ironing of a man’s suit. (I like to think that I’m an excellent 2000s wife, but surely the ironing of suits is the dry cleaner’s job – or that of the suit owner?) I remember bringing a large carton of macaroni cheese home, and eating it with my proud parents. I also remember the girl who left her carton of macaroni cheese at school in her locker at the back of the classroom, and forgot to retrieve it until the smell became so strong that everyone thought that one of the rats from the biology department had escaped and died somewhere.

Last year, my excellent brother bought me a white truffle, preserved in a jar, for my birthday. I felt duty-bound to stop keeping it in the cupboard and just looking at it every now and then (when there are very good things in that cupboard I have a horrible habit of not cooking with them in case I come up with a better idea for them later on). I needed to do something with it before my next birthday, so I cast around for something simple that would showcase the truffle in a creamy, cheesy, soothing sort of way. What better than macaroni cheese?

If you have fresh truffles, so much the better. If you have no truffles at all, this dish will still be absolutely delicious; it just won’t be truffled.

A quick note about the truffle oil I’ve used alongside the real truffle here before we begin. Preserved truffles inevitably have less aroma than fresh ones, so I’ve used some white truffle oil alongside my truffle. It’s genuine truffle oil – but most of the truffle oil you’ll see on the market has never been near a real truffle. The stuff you’ll usually see on sale is made with olive oil and Bis-(methylthio)methane or 2,4-dithiapentane, both industrially synthesised versions of odour chemicals occurring in real truffles. It’s not a patch on real truffles, which have hundreds of different chemicals combining with the dismal-sounding Bis-(methylthio)methane and 2,4-dithiapentane to create a much more complex odour and flavour profile than the oil has. It’d be a real shame to use any near your real truffle (although some unscrupulous chefs do use the stuff to vamp up lacklustre truffles). Happily, you can also buy olive oil which has been infused with real truffles; unhappily, it’s far more expensive than the synthetic stuff. Check your label. If it says “truffle essence”, “truffle flavour”, or “truffle aroma”, it’s synthetic. If it’s heartstoppingly expensive and says clearly on the label that real truffles have been used to make it (you can buy the real stuff at e-Foodies, a company I’m very fond of), buy it and use it here. If all you can find is the synthetic stuff, I’ll leave it up to you – use it if you like, but be aware that it doesn’t really taste like truffles; and you should feel absolutely free to leave it out of this recipe.

To serve four, you’ll need:

400g macaroni
500ml milk
1 carrot
1 shallot
5 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
1 bunch parsley
10 peppercorns
1 tablespoon olive oil
25g butter
25g plain flour
200g Parmesan cheese
75g Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small head broccoli
3 egg yolks
1 truffle (white or black)
2 tablespoons truffle oil
Salt to taste

Start by infusing the milk that will make the base of your Mornay (cheese) sauce with aromatics. Pour the milk into a saucepan with a well-fitting lid, and add the peeled carrot, cut into halves, the halved shallot, studded with the cloves, the bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Add a teaspoon of salt and ten whole peppercorns. Bring the milk to a bare simmer, then turn the heat off and leave the saucepan in a warm place for 3-4 hours. Strain the milk through a sieve.

Boil the macaroni according to the packet instructions with a tablespoon of olive oil. When the macaroni is cooked, rinse it in a colander to remove excess starch and set aside. Divide the raw broccoli into tiny florets and mix with the macaroni.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

In a clean, dry saucepan, melt the butter and combine with the flour, stirring over a low to medium heat for three minutes. Stirring all the time (I like to use a balloon whisk), add a small amount of milk and stir until it is incorporated into the sauce and starts to thicken. Keep adding milk in small amounts and stirring vigorously until all the milk is incorporated and you have a smooth, thick sauce. Stir the grated cheeses (reserving a little parmesan to top the dish with) into the sauce with the beaten egg yolks, the finely chopped truffle and the truffle oil (if using). Taste the sauce and add more salt if you think it needs it – the cheese is quite salty, so you may not need any.

Combine the sauce and the macaroni/broccoli mixture in a shallow earthenware dish. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining Parmesan cheese, and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the top is brown and the sauce is bubbling. Serve immediately, pouring over a little more (real) truffle oil if you fancy.

Cauliflower cheese

There’s something disproportionately impressive about wheeling a whole cauliflower out to the table, glistening in a robe of scented, cheesy sauce. It raises cauliflower cheese from a nursery tea dish to the sort of thing you might serve as a dinner party accompaniment.

I only ever make cauliflower cheese when I can find a pristine cauliflower. The cauli you choose should be firm and white, and still surrounded by its green leaves, which should be stiff, not floppy (floppy leaves mean the cauliflower has been out of the ground for too long). Don’t use a cauliflower with any bruised bits visible.

The Mornay sauce that’s slathered all over the cauliflower is a little more complicated than usual; the milk for the sauce is infused with aromatic herbs for a couple of hours before making the sauce up. It’s worth the tiny amount of extra effort. You’ll end up with a delicately scented, Parmesan-savoury cloud of white curds, a much finer dish than the wet stuff you remember from school.

To serve four as an accompaniment or two as a main course (if you’re eating this as a dish on its own, it’s very good with some toasted sourdough bread to mop up the lovely sauce) you’ll need:

1 large, firm, fresh cauliflower (around 1kg)
300ml whole milk
1 shallot
5 cloves
10 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley
75g butter
75g plain flour
A grating of nutmeg
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
150g grated Parmesan cheese plus a couple of tablespoons for sprinkling

A few hours before you start to eat, cut the shallot in half and stud it with the cloves. Place it in a saucepan with the bay leaves, parsley and peppercorns and pour over the milk. Bring the milk up to a gentle simmer, put the lid on and remove from the heat, leaving in a warm place for about three hours.

When you are ready to assemble the dish, use a sharp knife to remove all the outer leaves from the cauliflower except the very fine ones from the inner layer of leaves which curl around the curds. Cut the stalk off the bottom of the vegetable so it will sit flat when placed on a plate. Cut two big slashes in a cross shape into the bottom of the stalk – this will help the thickest part of the cauliflower to steam faster, so nothing will overcook and the whole vegetable retains a good texture. (Nothing is worse than a soggy cauliflower cheese.)

Steam the cauliflower in a large pan for twenty minutes, and heat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

While the cauliflower is steaming, make up the Mornay sauce. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan with the flour, and stir well over a low heat for three or four minutes – do not allow the roux (flour/butter mixture) to brown. Strain the milk and discard the aromatics. Add the milk to the pan very gradually, stirring all the time, until you have a thick white sauce. Stir the cheese, mustard and nutmeg through the sauce to finish.

Place the steamed cauliflower in an ovenproof serving dish, and spoon the thick sauce all over the cauliflower. Bake in the hot oven for 30 minutes – the sauce will be bubbling. Finish the dish by spooning some more of the sauce from the dish over the cauliflower and sprinkling over the extra grated parmesan, then placing under the grill until the cheese is golden and bubbling. Serve immediately.

Cheese scones

Cheese scones, English, savoury and light, were one of the first things I learnt how to cook in school home economics lessons. The scones we turned out at school were really pretty awful – there was not enough cheese, and they were full of margarine. But a good cheese scone, properly spiced, made with butter and plenty of strong cheese, can be very different, such that Dr W will eat three, buttered, in one go and then make strange contented sighing sounds for the next couple of hours.

This is (as my home economics teacher doubtless realised, despite her margarine/cheese stinginess problems) a great recipe for kids. It’s easy, it introduces them to the rubbing-in method they’ll use when they’re feeling advanced enough to attempt pastry, and it’s hard to mess up. And what child doesn’t get a huge kick out of baking something to go in his own lunchbox?

We ate these as part of a sort of high-tea arrangement late on Sunday afternoon. I like them with lots of butter and a little Marmite, which really makes the parmesan and cheddar in the scones sing. When buying the cheese for these scones, make sure your cheddar is a mature, flavourful variety.

To make 8 cheese scones you’ll need:

225g self-raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
50g softened, salted butter
50g cheddar, grated
25g parmesan, grated
150ml whole milk, plus a little to glaze

Preheat the oven to 230° C (450° F).

Sift the flour, salt, mustard and cayenne into a bowl (hold the sieve up high – you’re trying to aerate the mixture as much as you can). Cut the butter into pieces and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until you have a mixture that resembles breadcrumbs. Grate the cheeses and stir them into the flour mixture. Pour all the milk into the bowl with the flour and cheese, and use a knife to bring everything together into a dough.

Roll the dough out on a floured surface until it is 1cm thick, and cut into rounds with a fluted 6.5cm cutter. Arrange on a greased baking sheet and brush the top of each scone with milk. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the scones have risen and are golden. These are fantastic served straight from the oven. If you want to ring the changes, try adding a tablespoon of Herbes de Provence with the cheeses for a cheese and herb scone – really good served with a slice of sharp cheese.